7 Tips for Teaching Your Dog Attention

Our world is full of distractions for dogs; from squirrels to kids on skateboards to food in the kitchen trashcan.

Teaching your dog how to ignore those distractions when you ask him to can make training easier; after all, you can’t teach him unless you can gain his attention. In addition, when you can ask him to pay attention to you when he is distracted you can help keep him safe.

Find Several Exciting Motivators

Motivators are things your dog likes enough to pay attention to even when distracted. Each dog will have his own likes and dislikes; for example, dry crunchy treats may work for some dogs but may not be interesting or appealing enough for other dogs. Treats with a good smell, such as Swiss cheese and freeze dried liver, work for many dogs. A tennis ball may be the best thing in the world for a ball crazy dog while a fuzzy squeaky toy is best for dogs who love to hunt. Ideally, have at least three things that you can rotate as motivators. By rotating these, you can prevent boredom.

Teach “Watch Me”

In a quiet location with few (if any) distractions, put the leash on your dog and ask him to sit in front of you. Let him see and smell one of his motivators. Take that from his nose and move it towards your face. As his eyes follow your hand and his motivator, watch him. When he looks from your hand to your face, enthusiastically praise him, “Watch me! Yeah! Good watch me!” Then give him his treat or toy. Repeat four or five times and take a break. Come back later and do it again. Do this for several days and then if your dog is looking to your face quickly, move on to the next training step.

Slowly Add Distractions

Once your dog shows an understanding of the hand movement towards your face (essentially drawing his eyes upwards) and the words, “Watch me,” then it’s time to begin adding distractions. However, it’s important to do this gradually so you can build his confidence rather than set him up to fail. For your next training session, move from your quiet place to some where with another person, or from inside the house to the backyard, or just another location in the house. Repeat the exercises from the first training step and continue with your enthusiastic rewards. If a particular distraction is too much, move away from it, repeat the first training step to get his attention again, and then move to a slightly less distracting situation.

Incorporate into Other Situations

After several training sessions when your dog is watching you even with some distractions, you’re ready to move on to the next training step. Ask him to watch you before feeding him dinner, before throwing his ball, and while on a walk. Incorporate the watch me into your obedience training practice, too. Make sure the praise and rewards are strong and make it easy for him to succeed. Continue to use (and rotate) his motivators. Your goal is to have him able to watch you in a variety of situations as well as around different distractions.

Prevent Problems

The watch me is an excellent exercise to help prevent problem behaviors or situations. For example, if you’re on a walk and a dog is walking towards you both, lunging and barking, ask your dog to pay attention to you and move away from that distraction and potential problem. In the house, if you see him staring at the family cat, ask him to pay attention to you and call him away from the cat. Do the same thing if he’s sniffing the kitchen trash can. Just remember to move him away from the distraction prior to praising and rewarding him.

Fade Away the Motivators

When your dog is watching you intently when you ask him to, no matter the distraction, then you can begin using the motivators on a random basis. Continue to verbally praise each time but give him his treat or toy when he ignores an appealing distraction, or he turns his attention to you quickly, or when he holds it for longer than normal. In other words, give him his motivator for his best work. This will actually make his efforts even stronger.

Don’t Forget to Smile!

Dog owners tend to take their dog training efforts seriously; especially an important exercise like watch me. However, if you’re too serious and are frowning, your dog will be concerned and worried. He may back away from you rather than work close to you. So as you’re working together, smile at him. Laugh when he does something silly and bounce around with him when he does a really good job. The watch me is an important skill but that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun with it.


When your dog is doing a nice watch me, play a game with him using it. Ask your dog to sit in front of you and then with a treat in each hand, lift your arms to shoulder height straight out to each side. Then ask your dog, “Sweetie, watch me!” He’ll probably look at your hands but when he makes eye contact with you, praise him enthusiastically and give him a treat. Then do it again and have fun!

Meet the Author: Liz Palika, CDT, CABC

Liz Palika is a Certified Dog Trainer and Certified Animal Behavior Consultant as well as the founder and co-owner of Kindred Spirits Dog Training in northern San Diego county. Liz is also the founder of Love on a Leash therapy dogs; her dog, Bones, goes on visits on a regular basis. A prolific writer, Liz is also the author of more than 80 books. Many of her works have been nominated or won awards from a variety of organizations, including Dog Writers Association of America, San Diego Book Awards, the ASPCA, and others. Liz shares her home with three English Shepherds: Bones, Hero, and Seven, as well as one confident and bossy orange tabby cat, Kirk. To relax from work, or to take work on the road, Liz and her crew travel the West and PNW in their RV. If you see an RV on the road named "Travelin' Dogs", honk and say hi!

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